Frontier Life

On the drive home this evening, my three year old was feeling a little grumpy. ‘Don’t ask me about my day, Mama,’ he warned with a growl as I buckled him into his seat after I picked him up at day care. So I didn’t, and silence filled the car until the moment I rounded the corner onto our street, at which point Gabriel nearly broke out of his five-point harness for pure joy, shouting, ‘Look, Mama! It’s the MAIL TRUCK!’

Sure, he likes trucks. But the excitement that melted away his bad mood was all about the mail. If anyone happens to notice when Miss Bernadette pulls up to our mailbox in her tidy mail truck, both my kids will dash out the front door and stand in the street, nearly shaking with anticipation as they stretch up on tiptoe to pull down the white metal door. You never know what might come! There could be a new issue of Spider magazine, or a card from a grandparent, or even a cool toy catalog that will become their ‘magazine’ for the afternoon.

The truth is I feel the same kind of buzz  around my version of this ritual. Most of my special notes and small pleasures arrive via the internet, and you never know what the morning email check will bring. Without the connection and solidarity I find through correspondence with friends, comments on my blog, and the occasional note on Facebook, I doubt I would have found the balance and comfort with motherhood that I now feel. It’s funny how people in all sorts of far flung places have helped me to find peace in this particular place with these very particular small people.

When we moved to where we now live almost three years ago, I was leaving a very different life behind me. I worked full time as a social worker in a community health center, and my husband was the primary caregiver for our daughter. We lived within walking distance of friends, my job, and my mother. Then my husband got a dream job, and we had another baby, and I decided that in our new town it would be my turn at home with the children.

Lordy, was it hard in the beginning! I remember one melting hot August morning, a few weeks into my new stay-at-home gig, when I decreed that we were going to walk to the library. That’s what we used to do, after all. Feeling defiant about the car culture of our new sidewalk-less town, I settled the baby into his stroller, praying he would do us all a favor and nap along the way, and took my three year old daughter firmly by the hand. Off we went, scuttling to the side of the street whenever we heard the rumble of another car coming.

Halfway there my daughter started to whine and complain of intolerable sweatiness. Her steps began to drag. I felt frustration boiling like molten lava in me, a lone volcano-mama standing in an eerily quiet street with only my limp daughter and sleep-resistant son to witness how desperate I felt. At that moment, I couldn’t accept how different our town was, how different my life was, and how pointless and alienating it is to unilaterally push one’s agenda onto small children. I felt utterly alone on a bizarre kind of frontier. I would not have been surprised to see tumbleweeds blowing past. (They surely were in my heart).

We muddled through those first months somehow. Over time, I began to meet my kids halfway, which opened up into a luminous intimacy. On a very good day, when I could slow down and accept a different pace, my kids gave me the world made strange and new. It was all kind of extraordinary. It still is.

I’d been baking bread from a recipe in a classic vegetarian cookbook, The New Laurel’s Kitchen, for years before I happened to read the opening essay in it by Carol Flinders a year or so ago. It’s called The Work at Hand. In it, she talks of the work of making a family, a home, and a community as a truly challenging endeavor, requiring great stores of creative energy and fortitude. It’s a trend-bucking, weird-living thing to commit oneself to. So often we find the norm all around us is working long hours, driving long commutes. We suffer acute economic pressures, and yet we also buy too much stuff (which promises to satisfy a deep need, but never will). So Carol Flinders exhorts us to find a new way. What we lack, she says, is a sense of real place. It is up to us to dig deep and create one. She calls us the new pioneers.

Here she is on frontier life: We are … surrounded by wilderness, and the job at hand is to make a clearing – to clear a space and determine that what goes on within that circle will be a prototype of the world as you would like it to be. The thrilling thing is to see those small circles begin to touch upon one another here and there, and overlap – sturdy outposts, ground for hope.

Reading these words reinforced how my sense of isolation had been transformed into a sense of opportunity. A creative challenge. When Carol Flinders was writing in the 1980s, there was no internet and certainly no such thing as the All Things Mothering community blog. I wonder what she would say of the proliferation of mama blogs and sources of parenting support to be found online today. Though it doesn’t replace the pleasure of walking in a neighbor’s backdoor unannounced with a cranky baby on your hip and being offered a beer – and knowing just which drawer to rifle through to find the bottle cap opener –  the energy and solidarity to be found online can surely strengthen our desire to be the change we wish to see in the world.

I know it has for me. I find endless inspiration online for this trailblazing work we are all undertaking in our own ways, creating real homes in real places for real people to live in.  That’s why I’m so happy to be contributing here! When our time spent online is in balance with the other parts of our life, it can sweeten our efforts to create homes that prioritize creativity and peacefulness. Sturdy outposts from which our children (and we) can grow.

So yeah, I like it when the mail comes. I love it when the mail comes. Send me some mail! Share with us how online publications, blogs, email correspondences and social media affect your mothering. Do you find solidarity and support online? Can the internet help us create real places?

Here I am, near the sugar snap peas in our garden last summer, surveying a backyard frontier full of five year olds at my daughter’s birthday party. You can read and see more at my personal blog, Homemade Time.






About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.

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